“And who’s gonna raise a hand
When all we were taught to do was dance
Who’ll be able to stand
After this avalanche”
Thea Gilmore – Avalanche
If Pete Townshend felt provoked, by an overbearing post-war generation, to write My Generation exhorting his elders to “just fade away”, Thea Gilmore’s ire seems aimed as much, if not more, at her own age group. Whether it’s the world weary, literate, and bitterly dissapointed Avalanche, or the more upbeat but no less pointed songs like Mainstream or When did you get so safe, Gilmore has plenty to say, to her generation. “I am tired of the apathy of my generation… it is an incredibly materialistic demographic that I operate in, and if any song I write cuts through that, even a little, then I am doing my job right”.
Gilmore has, with little fuss, managed to take the term ‘indie’ and put some meaning back into it. While groups of similarly besuited and hairstyled bands qualified for the term simply because they played guitars and weren’t ‘pop’, she was busy recording self-financed albums, and releasing them to ever wider circles. Perhaps it’s because of this D.I.Y. ethic that she’s remarkably frank in her interviews. In these dark times, for all the ‘singer-songwriters’ that seem to be out there, very few artists are willing to admit that their music exists outside of a vacuum. “I think that anybody, not just musicians, who plays an active role in society has a duty to be political,” she says, when I ask whether it’s right for musicians to comment, in their songs, on politics. “I don’t even mean just with a capital ‘P’, – she continues – there are very few things in day-to-day life that are not political in some way. I have a responsibility to be aware of my surroundings and aware of how my actions affect others. It really is impossible to sing a song that isn’t some kind of social commentary.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Gilmore is a dyed-in-the-wool political folkie, particularly after a profile boosting tour of the States with Joan Baez [this writer’s father suggests, with a sad shake of his head, that music died the day that Joan Baez picked up a guitar, but that may just be his opinion], but nothing could be further from the truth, or rather the whole truth. She started writing songs at the age of 16, after a work experience stint in Fairport Convention’s studio, so it’s no surprise that some of her work has an element of ‘folk’, but her records are delightfully diverse. She seems to change styles as easily as stringing together her elaborate, rythmic lyrics. She seems reasonably happy to be labelled folk, but then again, her definition of folk includes Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana. “Folk music is a very broad term – Gilmore explains – and it always depends on who is defining it to you at the time. My definition of ‘folk’ music, is music that has touched and/or motivated a populous in a way that is not marketing driven. So my theory that Smells Like Teen Spirit is a folk song is because of the mass appeal it had at a grass-roots almost subconscious level”.
And if Nirvana are ‘folk’, what about the Britney Spears and Spice Girls out there? How can you differentiate between pop and folk at the end of the day? “Britney Spears and The Spice Girls? I’m sure there is an argument – she answers – but my thought is that without the marketing powers behind those acts, they would never have acquired their place in public consciousness. I don’t think the same could be said for Nirvana”.
But, surely, at the end of the day Nirvana had a major record label, and MTV support etc. Isn’t it a bit elitist to define the Spice Girls as popular because of their marketing budget, while Nirvana, who were on a major label, are ‘folk’ because they have some artistic credibility – notwithstanding their own marketing budget? “Like I said, folk is subjective,” she responds, “one man’s folk is another man’s pop (which of course is short for popular which in turn suggests folk) I was just airing my opinion, which, as a songwriter, is bound to be more in favour of the writing process rather than the marketing. I think Nirvana’s songwriting had the ability to reach out to a generation, which is a very powerful tool when it is coming from the heart behind the song, people really felt and identified the soul in Cobain’s music and marketing was just a tool to push that soul out into the world. Personally I find it hard to imagine that the Spice girls’ music touched anyone on a level deeper than just nifty pop songs, but then I was the wrong age to really ‘get’ them and perhaps I am doing them a disservice. Either way, the idea of folk music really depends on who is defining it”. And then, she continues, with tongue in cheek, “these are just my feelings and I am a musical snob!!!”.
Indeed, reading through her lyrics, one could imagine how she might be more than a little cynical at the branding of ‘Girl-Power’ champions like the Spice Girls. While writers like Kathy Acker were keen to co-opt the Spice Girls as feminist icons, Victoria Beckham expressed an increasingly common view about the ‘f-word’, when she said, “I wouldn’t consider myself a feminist. We all admire strong, independent women, but I’m a romantic”. Thea Gilmore, who it should be pointed out has written some jaw-droppingly beautiful love songs in her time, is unafraid to declare herself a feminist: “I think anyone who has any sort of empathy for humankind should consider themselves feminists – she explains, continuing – It isn’t about militance or aggression, it is about decency and humanity. I think feminism should be able to exist in the context of anything, unfortunately the music industry seems to be so incredibly reactionary.. It’s almost the final frontier in the basics of gender politics”.